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survey on happiness in wsj

Image by Lukas Blazek on Unsplash.

A recent article in the WSJ reported the results of a WSJ/NORC study on happiness. The article claimed that “America’s happiest people have a few traits in common: They value community and close personal relationships. They tend to believe in God. And they generally are older, often in their retirement years.”

These qualities describe the 12% of survey respondents who described themselves as “very happy,” not just “happy.” Thirty percent were “not to happy” while a majority (56%) were “pretty happy.”

 The WSJ reached out to the 12% to learn more. That’s how they concluded that most of the 12% were older, married and religious.

This survey raises three concerns.

First, it’s a correlation, not causation.

It’s entirely possible that people who are married, religious, and older hold values about feeling happy and defining themselves as happy. 

Several years ago, I met a young lady who was reading an abnormal psychology text for a college class. I commented, “That must be interesting.” Her response was, “It’s stupid. I was taught that if I feel depressed I should look around and be thankful for what I have.” In other words, for her, feeling unhappy was a moral failure.

People have values around feeling happy and expressing their happiness to strangers.

One respondent tells the WSJ she wants her joy “to be centered within me and not depend on anything outside me.” She clearly holds values related to feeling happy. 

Second, and relatedly, people might define happiness differently. 

It’s not clear they’re all talking about the same state of mind. “Pretty happy” vs. “very happy” seems to be an arbitrary distinction and may depend on the way respondents use words. Some people use tentative terms, hedging with “pretty happy,” because they rarely use superlatives. 

Ask half a dozen people if the room temperature feels warm or cool. That’s far more objective than asking them to communicate their degree of happiness. Yet in both cases, you’ll get a wide range of answers.

Finally, while NORC has an excellent reputation, I suspect it’s harder to get people to complete surveys.

A lot of people will refuse to answer. It’s extremely likely that people who respond to surveys will differ from those who refuse. These aren’t the happiest people in the US; they’re people from a possibly biased sample who described themselves as “very happy.” Not the same thing. 

Additionally, if you’re answering questions that might be traced back to you, you’d probably respond with care. Get labeled as “depressed” and your next medical visit could be labeled as “pretty interesting” to “horrific.” 

Anecdotally, I’ve met a man who was misdiagnosed as depressed when he was in the early stages of cancer. I’ve also met a woman who received a psychiatric diagnosis when her thyroid dropped. In both cases, clinicians interpreted objective findings in light of notes in the patient’s chart.

Happiest Americans? I’m “not at all sure” what that means and I’m “extremely sure” the conclusions about happiness aren’t helpful.